Piper built the Saratoga in both fixed- and retractable-gear models, and turbocharging was available in both. The horizontal tail was back in its traditional position, and the cowling on the turbo used the standard downdraft cooling. The retractable model is called an HP to insinuate high performance. The Saratoga proved to be five knots or so faster than the Six, and the turbo HP could hit 165 knots at the top end. The Saratoga pulled ahead of Cessna's six-seat 206 in cruise performance, and the turbo got within shouting distance of the six-seat A36 Bonanza.
Over the years, the Saratoga was refined in many ways, particularly in the quality of materials and fit-and-finish in the interior. In 1994 the Saratoga II was introduced with tiny, axisymmetric cooling air inlets in the cowling. The size of the inlet is a fraction of the previous cowling, but the conical shape of the base of the inlet and its precise position on the cowling proved to be as efficient as, or even more efficient than, the larger openings. The Saratoga II gained a little speed from lower engine-cooling drag and also gained some panache with the high-tech look of the new cowling.
The Saratoga II was the last significant external change in the PA-32 family, but all aspects of quality in and out of the airplane continued to improve, along with avionics advances. The big change in the panel came in the 2005 model, in which Avidyne's Entegra flat-glass displays replaced conventional instruments. Garmin GNS 430s handled navigation and communication, and the Entegra system contained the nonmoving electronic AHRS that replaced the standard gyros.
Piper tried to pump up PA-32 sales in 2004 with introduction of the 6X model, a stripped down version offered with both naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines. The base price was $100,000 lower than for the Saratoga II, but there were not a lot of takers. New airplane buyers wanted the glass avionics and other advances the 6X lacked.
I had been methodical in the weight-and-balance calculation. The dot on the chart put the airplane well within CG limits. I drew in a deep breath as we rolled down the 3,000-foot runway at the Skaneateles Airport in upstate New York. Using barely half of the runway, the Cherokee Six leapt into the air. I was impressed.
The year was 1976. I was a 19-year-old flight instructor. My passengers, like myself, were employees of a local FBO in Syracuse. We were bound for Vero Beach, Florida. Our mission was to ferry five brand-new airplanes back from the Piper factory. As far as I was concerned, my PIC assignment on that day might as well have been the cockpit of a 747. My fondness for the Cherokee Six has remained ever since.
For countless years I had threatened to buy an airplane. My friends had rolled their eyes wondering when I would shut up and get it done. Although most of my window-shopping extolled the virtues of twin-engine redundancy, the Cherokee Six always seemed to creep back into my thoughts. Why?
Granted, my airline mentality is more comfortable with at least two of everything. I agonized over the never-ending single vs. twin debate. But two of everything is expensive. Could I mitigate the risk with new parts, proper maintenance and well-equipped avionics? The answer was yes.
With that rationale in mind, there was no better or more operationally affordable airplane for me than a Cherokee Six. It is my single-engine airliner. Although the airplane has seven seats, the useful load allows four adults and their baggage to ride in comfort with full fuel tanks. And if I choose to stuff more people into the airplane, the aft entry door makes climbing aboard easy. A forward baggage compartment and an aft baggage compartment keep cabin clutter to a minimum. Stability, even in choppy air, is never an issue.
Is it slow? Yup. I move along at only 145 knots. But I get there in style. And the gear is always down. Once the approach is stabilized, as in a good Boeing, it's hard to make a bad landing.
I am positive that no one has found the perfect airplane, but for this airline pilot's wallet, a Cherokee Six comes as close as it gets.—Les Abend
During the past few years, the number of Saratoga sales has tapered off, particularly with introduction of the Matrix, which led Piper's six-seat sales. But there are hundreds of PA-32 models on the used market to choose from, and their prices, well down substantially from a year or two ago, are holding up as well as any piston singles. The cabin room and ease of loading through the big doors that made the original Cherokee Six a success continue to be major assets for the airplane. The Lycoming 540 engine is highly regarded by many pilots, and the PA-32 airframe has proven to be durable with no unusual maintenance issues.
Prices for early Cherokee Sixes are down around the $50,000 mark, while the earliest Saratogas are in the $100,000 vicinity. Of course, when considering airplanes 30 and even 40 years old, there is no way to generalize, because condition and equipment make enormous differences in value. But no matter what you pay, you won't find more cabin room and utility than in a member of the big PA-32 family.